The morning after my gig at SquareRut, I had an early morning call to play at the lovely Gateway Guesthouse. I played half an hour or so for the guests, then was treated to brunch (flappers, their specialty – yeast-based pancakes topped with brie and a honey/brown sugar syrup…insanely good) and some lovely chat. Then, off to spend another day in Austin, scoring great Bloody Mary’s, tacos (natch), and a pair of honest-to-goodness, long-lusted-for cowboy boots. Put ’em on right away, too.

Monday morning, had a decent brunch of migas, kind of an Austin specialty (though they fall short of chilequiles, I have to admit), then caught my Megabus to Houston. I nearly missed it, as these curbside stops are often entirely unmarked, and there was no info on their site except the cross streets. But I finally saw the familiar towering blue double-decker pulled into a parking lot off the street, and ran on, sweating.

Houston is an impossibly sprawling place, with the metropolitan area stretching 50 miles wide. It was sheer luck that the venue was walking distance (about a mile, that is) from the bus stop. I hoofed it over through streets devoid of other pedestrians, and found a banh mi shop in the same strip as the bar. The venerable banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich of French bread with meat, tofu or fish stuffed inside along with chiles, cilantro and pickled vegetables. This version was decent, especially for $2.71, and I hung out for an hour munching the food log and catching up on some diaries.


Bow to the banh mi.

I had struggled mightily to come up with a gig in Houston. Monday nights are tough anywhere – a lot of likely places are simply closed until the next weekend is in sight – and I don’t really have connections in the town. But somehow I stumbled on Khon’s, and it sounded promising, an offbeat bar/gallery with a very local clientele, if Yelp is to be believed.

I was greeted warmly by the proprietor, Khon himself, and he helped me get set up in the front corner of the comfortable room, with local artwork on the walls and a big game table in the back. This table was filled with people playing something card-based and intense (bridge? pinochle? Magic?), and though there was not a single other customer in the place, their presence was lively and boded well.

By 9 pm showtime, however, not another soul had arrived, and I was feeling a bit embarrassed. I had tried as hard as I could to promote the date, hitting up all the newspapers and weeklies and public radio calendars, and even had gotten an Arts Pick selection for the night. But though the table in the back was still full of players, nobody was in the front except me and the bartender.

I killed time until 9:15, then figured I might as well play, for my own practice if nothing else. I plugged in and tested out a few tunes I don’t play very often, running them all together without breaks to avoid that shaming silence when applause should happen, but doesn’t (this is a frequent tactic). I continued in this vein for a little while, then took a break, stepping outside for a breath of Texas air before resuming.

A few tunes later, just when I was considering whether I should give it up for the night, a genuine customer arrived and plunked themselves down at the bar, expectantly looking my way. I started pulling out some of the tunes from my regular set, and after a bit a couple walked in, then another. The place was starting to feel a bit lively, and I even got a few rounds of applause.

Then, the group who had been playing cards broke up, and they started filing out. One gave me a thumbs-up and left a buck or two on my merch table, and then another chucked down a tenner, grabbed a CD and shouted “Thanks!”. They’d heard me after all, who knew?

A few more people filtered in, and though conversation started to drown me out, at least a few of the customers were still giving a good listen, and I was happy. Not bad for a Monday night.





Austin: where the weird have already turned pro.

It’s not easy for an outsider to book a gig in Austin. I’ve never had a great show in the self-proclaimed (and frequently – the slogan appeared even on the plane’s exit ramp when I touched down) Live Music Capital Of The World. I think there are just so many professional musicians here, who make their living filling regular slots in the million clubs, bars and pizza joints around town, that there is simply no need for a touring musician in the economy unless they can draw hundreds of people. (Which I’m not. You know…yet).

This time, I tried the shotgun approach, sending out messages to about a dozen venues that seemed like they might stoop down as to make room for a low-profile troubadour, including one place primarily known as a hot dog take-out counter. (Which has three-band bills every night, but still, I’m a little ashamed). None of the dozen even had the decency to respond, even with respond with a No, except SquareRut Kava Bar, which kindly offered me a gig, on a Saturday night no less. Score!

Now, you may think that I’ve spelled “kava” wrong, and that it should be a cava bar. You may be right.

Kava is a Polynesian drink which, according to Wikipedia, causes “slight tongue and lip numbing, mildly talkative and sociable behavior, clear thinking, calmness, relaxed muscles, and a sense of well-being”. Also, it tastes terrible. (Here, Wikipedia is charitable: “slightly pungent”). SquareRut serves kava, and only kava (OK, and some tea). No alcohol, because it’s a really bad idea to mix kava and hooch, apparently.

A Saturday night show in Austin with no beer may sound like a contradiction in terms. I felt a little bad inviting people to the joint, in fact, knowing that they’d be trapped in my sound-world for two hours with no alcohol to assist with the enjoyment. But I went ahead and put out the word, and people responded positively, though none had heard of kava, and some were a bit leery of passing on the invite, knowing about the limited availability of adult beverage refreshment. But signs pointed toward a decently-attended show, at least.

I arrived on Thursday, and greatly enjoyed the foods, drinks and weather of Austin leading up to Saturday. It was a little hard getting used to the fact that it isn’t really a walking town, even though it appears that way on a map. For instance, walking from 6th St. to the strip on South Congress looks like a modest eight-block walk, which should take, I dunno, ten minutes at a good pace. But in actuality it will take you at least half an hour, and in the searing Texas sun you’ll probably expire before you make it. Buses generally arrive every 20 minutes at best, and the new metro rail system only has a single line which runs once an hour, and shuts down completely from 4 pm Saturday until Monday morning. So…when visiting, pack a car.

Saturday evening, I and a group of friends worked hard to find a dinner place that had an open table for seven people, but even at the ungodly early hour of 6 pm, everywhere was booked solid. I have to assume that everyone just makes plans to hit up one of the food trucks parked in every vacant space in the city (there are easily more food trucks than actual restaurants) after taking in their live music for the night. But we finally found a Thai place that had room on their patio, and under the glow of heat lamps (hot as the days were, the nights get chilly in the desert) ate an excellent meal.

Then we got in our cars and headed south. SquareRut is located on South Congress, but south of the strip. Four miles south, to be exact. We left behind the bright lights and passed through open fields in total darkness before arriving at a small strip mall, with almost nothing around it. This was the real Austin city limits.

The space inside was bright and friendly, at least, with a good stage and decent sound system. I got myself set up, and other friends soon started to arrive. Most tried the kava, with some bravely choosing the recommended dosage of three full servings, which arrived in charming coconut half-shells. There were various flavorings available, which made the stuff much more palatable, until they ran out of everything but the straight stuff partway through my set, I learned later. The general consensus on the taste: “bitter dirt”. Or, “the water left over from washing potatoes”. Slobber!

I didn’t find this out until later, of course. I’d been warned not to try it before playing, as the potion numbs one’s mouth and I didn’t want to be drooling onstage. So I plugged in and kicked off my two sets, happy to have a nice crowd of friends as well as a fair number of kava-sipping diehards scattered around the cafe. It felt great to be onstage again, and I felt like I was connecting pretty well, though some of those diehards sat with their backs to me the entire night, try as I might to get their attention.

People had nice things to say afterward – my newest tune “Conversation With the Spirits” got some high marks – and a group of us headed for the Hotel San Jose courtyard for a beer. None of my friends reported much of a relaxing effect from the kava, even after three half-shells. Before I left, I did in fact have a sip – my lips numbed, and my tongue recoiled at the distinctly bitter taste. But given the number of other people in the cafe who were drinking it all night, with gusto, it clearly does have an audience, mysterious as that is.



This show took a lot of time and effort to come together. When I booked it back in November, the booker asked if I’d like the opportunity to curate the night. Knowing that Tea Lounge is a generally well-regarded venue, and having so much time to work with, I thought this would be a good chance to put together a really interesting night of music that would encourage people to stick around from set to set. New York seems worse than many other places in that bands show up at their slot time, play, then pack up and leave, and their entire crowd goes with them. I wanted to create a bill worth sticking around for, at least once.

I knew that a night full of solo acoustic strummers is one way to guarantee the yawn factor, no matter how good the musicians might be, so I first resolved to avoid guitarists if at all possible. I started seeking out Brooklyn songwriters who used something else to accompany themselves. Before long, I found someone who seemed perfect – a violinist and singer with great tunes and a lot of experience playing locally. I dropped her a note and she wrote back the next day accepting the slot, and suggesting a friend of hers to play as the third act on the bill. I was already familiar with this friend, a very accomplished cellist with big ties in the new music world, and in fact am a fan of her stuff. This was gonna be great!

Unfortunately, the cellist soon wrote to say she couldn’t do it due to another booking. RATS. Still, the gig was months away, so I kept looking to find a third act to complete our bill. I found some interesting people – accordionists, more cellists, even a trombonist – who are doing cool stuff that relates somewhat to my song-oriented sphere (as opposed to, say, chamber music). I sent out five or six emails and Facebook messages, and people responded with interest, but everyone had a conflict that particular night. 

I searched again, found more folks (New York has no shortage of musicians, BTW), and shot out another round of messages. Again, the responses started coming back – interested, but not available. 

By now it was January, and it was high time I nailed things down. Just as I gathered another batch of names to approach, I heard from the violinist I had onboard; she had messed up her schedule, and had to back out of our performance. Oh…rats. Now I had nobody for the night and the Lounge was starting to ask for the final bill.

I started crawling through the calendars of other Brooklyn venues, looking for anyone – anyone – to join me. I still wanted to avoid other acoustic solo guitar players, but I was running completely out of ideas. I found a few more acts that seemed to fit the basic idea, and sent them a desperate message.

Miracuously, I heard back from one of the most promising people that had popped onto my radar, a solo acapella vocalist. And she was available, AND she said that she could find friends to complete the bill. Eureka! She was responsive to my followup emails, and we soon worked out a bill with not one, but two other acts – a freak-pop band, and a “cello-jazz guitar-drums” trio. A little different than what I’d originally imagined, but a complete bill of people who were happy to play.

I immediately wrote the Lounge, and at their request put together a blurb for each of the acts, digging through various Facebook, ReverbNation, and even Myspace (!) pages to gather info. They got it up on their site, and with barely two weeks to  spare, we had a night of music. Whew. 

I turned my attention back to booking my February tour, which badly needed some time investment, and moved February 8 to the back of my mind. But then, not three days after the confirmation, I got the bad news – the freakpopsters were backing out. I didn’t even try to suppress a hearty scream of frustration (good thing I was at home…), but almost instantly remembered a fantastic band I’d seen a few days before at Rockwood Music Hall, and whom I’d discussed a possible future joint gig. I dropped them a note, and they wrote back within an hour to confirm their involvement. Saved! The Lounge updated their site, and once again, I let the night go out of my mind. 

A few days into the first week of February, I began to hear conversations about an upcoming giant snowstorm. A hundred-year-storm, one for the history books. And it was due to whack New York City on the evening of…Friday, February 8.  Though I knew that snow could cut down attendance, I wasn’t too concerned – the fact that I had my bill solid for the night was all I really cared about. And one of my first shows in NYC was at Caffe Vivaldi during a blizzard, and it turned out to be a really fun show for me and the people who came out.

When Friday came, the city was beginning to batten down the hatches for the storm, which still promised legendary proportions. A couple of the other acts called me to be sure the show was still on, and I reassured them that it would be going on as scheduled (the Lounge had already told me they’d be open all night, come what may from the skies). The weather experts predicted that the peak of the snowfall would arrive around 10 or 11, but I figured by that point. everyone would already be inside, and we’d have a nice cozy little jamboree.

By mid-afternoon the snow had started to fall, very gently. It continued on as I prepared to leave home close to 8, with the wind picking up a bit and perhaps a inch or two settled on the ground. I stopped by my friend Pauline’s place near the Lounge, to rehearse a tune we’d planned to play together (she’s a great violinist). We blew through the tune a few times, then just as I was putting my boots on to go, I got an email from the headlining band. They were worried about getting home after the storm, and were bowing out.

I hadn’t considered this possibility, that a band would choose not to appear, at the last minute. I personally can’t imagine canceling a show for any reason other than emergency personal hospitalization. And if you’re actually promoting a show, you have to consider that you’re disappointing the people you invited to come. Worse, they had promised to bring half the drumkit for the night, which was going to affect the first band. But the show must go on, so I trudged over to the Lounge, thinking that, at least, I might be able to extend my set a bit.

The wind was now blowing pretty hard, and plenty of snow was falling, though there still wasn’t more then a few inches on the ground. I ducked into the Lounge to find people at most of the tables, sipping tea, plugged into laptops, or just chatting. A very welcoming sight. I began to set up, and soon members of the first band started to arrive, another happy event.

This first band, who were scheduled to do a short 20-minute set before the rest of us, was the only one I hadn’t heard personally, and which had been described to me as “jazz guitar, cello, and drums”. The first thing I noticed was that these were clearly a bunch of rock n’ roll dudes, and when the frontman plugged in his guitar, there was nothing jazz about it. He was rocking out. I didn’t see a cello in sight, either, and when I casually asked about it they had no idea what I was talking about, though the bass player admitted that he played an upright sometimes, maybe that’s what our friend in common had noticed. Oh well. The show, you know!

Just at that point, I got another email, from the solo vocalist (the one who’d set up the first band). My heart in my throat, I opened it up, and saw what I dreaded to find – she, too, would not be appearing this evening. She claimed she’d had the flu all week, and while that’s an excuse I could consider valid, hearing about it a few minutes before showtime is not, like, very cool. And right then, after all that had happened this gig, especially so.

So there we were, after all that, my grand night had boiled down to a power trio that knew four songs, and me. But, if I need to say it again, the damned show must go the hell on.

A nice little crowd of my friends had arrived by this point, as had some pals of the band. After scrambling a bit to put together a full drumset, the fellas plugged in and launched into a loud, grunge-oriented set, ending with a bruising cover of NiN’s “Hurt”. In truth, they were pretty good at what they did, but I was finding it hard to appreciate them. This band just were’t at all what I had imagined as part of the bill (I was picturing Clogs, and was getting Soundgarden…), and my resentment over the way things had turned out lingered on. But the last thing I was going to do was to put on a lame set, so I steeled myself, plugged in my guitar and put on a smile.

After a song or two, everything else melted away, and I started to thoroughly enjoy myself. I was playing pretty well and people were listening, what else could I ever want? Pauline joined me with her violin to cover “Gold” from the Once musical/movie, dedicated to a friend, and my enjoyment went even higher up the scale. I did another solo tune to finish up (a new arrangement of “House”, an old favorite), and my contribution was done. A good feeling, after all of that.

A friend of the first band had volunteered to play a bit of solo guitar afterward, since there was nothing else going on, so I had a welcome beer and enjoyed some of his drone-based music while catching up with friends. Then a few of us lit out to find food in the neighborhood. Pushing open the front door, we saw a winter wonderland, one of those amazing times when the city emits no noise and everything is white. The wind was nasty, and the snow had accumulated to at least six inches, but it was great fun stumbling through the piles, and when we found an Italian place open with good pizza and great wine, we had ourselves a perfect end to a pretty good night, after all.





Tuesday evening, I got an email from a promoter asking if I was interested in filling in for an open slot on Wednesday night at Wicked Willy’s, a club on the (in)famous Bleecker Street. Though I’ve never played there, just last week I went to the Red Lion, a club down the block from Willy’s, to see a friend play. It was the kind of scene I expected from the strip, a mix of tourists and NYU students, both enjoying cheap margaritas, pitchers of Bud and loud cover bands. So when this email came, after a quick glance at their site (“time flies when you’re drinking rum!”) I knew what I would be getting myself into.

Still, I was up for the challenge of trying to get across to a crowd in party mode, and thought it might allow me to play before a crowd I wouldn’t normally encounter otherwise. Moreover, I had no plans for the night, and there was no pressure to try to promote the gig in the 24 hours before set time. I wrote back and accepted the slot, albeit not without a few misgivings.

I arrived in the place to find abundant pirate-related decorations, unbelievably cheap drink specials, and an acoustic duo doing a decent version of “Bye Bye Love”. The last was promising enough, though after a few more songs I realized they were playing nothing but cover tunes, each in precisely the same style. They sound was decent enough, and there were a handful of people listening to them play, though as soon they finished both band and listeners repaired together to the back room, which is dedicated to beer pong (I wish I were kidding).

The soundperson got me going quickly, and I got going with my set, as upbeat as possible. There were people scattered around the place, and occasionally I earned a glance, but by and large they had their eyes trained on a conversation partner or a football game on one of the TV’s. 

No matter what I played, there was no applause. Whenever this happens, I try to just keep the music going as it’s just too embarrassing otherwise. I blew through my dozen songs, said a “thank you for listening, everyone!” from which I drained as much irony as possible, and was rewarded with a few listless claps.

I retired to the bar, and in keeping with the spirit of the place, ordered a Rum & Coke. The modest glass arrived, carried by a bartender who requested $3 of me. Now, $3 was the advertised price for this bottom-of-the-well-liquor special…really, I wasn’t even gonna get a free drink?!? I asked her, “Wait, I don’t even get a discount?” She replied, a bit embarrassed, “Sorry, not on Wednesdays.”

I threw back the drink and slunk out of there. I’d just been told that my 45 minutes of live music wasn’t worth even the few quarter’s worth of cheap booze that goes into this crappy drink. It was a bit shaming, sure, but more than that I was just amazed that they could keep a regular schedule of musicians willing to play for nothing at all. Moreover, though the musicians are all locals, and potential customers, you can be damned sure that I, for one, will never spend a dime in that place. Seems like bad business to me – then again, it was hardly a shrewd decision to take this gig. Now I know.